Mark Simpson interviews Neil LaBute about his film ‘In the Company of Men’ – twenty years before ‘toxic masculinity’ went ‘hegemonic’
(Originally appeared in Attitude, 1998)
Women are made of sugar and spice. While men are made from slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. This would appear to be the conclusion of American playwright Neil LaBute’s first movie, In the Company of Men. Based on his stage play of the same name, it’s a merciless exposure of male sadism, power-jockeying, moral bankruptcy and nasty neckties. It isn’t exactly what you might call a feelgood movie.
On its release in the States, its relentlessly negative portrayal of male culture in Corporate America caused something of a storm at a time when the Promise Keepers were marching on Washington in their hundreds of thousands to sing hymns, pray, hold hands and pledge themselves to a vision of an altruistic, virtuous masculinity which Walt Disney would have applauded.
In the film two junior male execs, Chad a Nazi-frat-house-jock type with an exceptionally large chin, and Howard a nerdy-sick-note-from-mom type with virtually no chin at all, vow to take revenge on the whole female sex by simultaneously wooing a lonely deaf girl, waiting for her to fall for them, before revealing that they had only dated her as a joke.
An electrifying performance by Aaron Eckhart as Chad, the extremely unsympathetic and of course extremely attractive instigator of this plan, holds together an otherwise thinly plotted film which is almost as much in love with itself as Chad. Nevertheless, it anatomises very well a masculine culture where everyone is manoeuvring to be the fucker not the fuckee.
‘You got the balls for this job?’ Chad asks a young black colleague below him in the pecking order, before literally forcing him to get his knackers out. ‘Because you need balls. Business is all about whose got the biggest sacs of venom and who’s prepared to use them.’ Chad has the biggest and boy, does he use them.
‘It seems to be a polarising movie,’ says LaBute on the line from LA. ‘And not just along gender lines – people seem to be split between those who say that no good can come from showing bad and those who think that this is the only way to learn. Either way I prefer this kind of response to: “Oh, that was good. Now, where do we eat?” The most damning words to me are, “That was different” or “That was interesting.” I’d much rather they have a visceral reaction than like it.’
That’s particularly clear in the ending, where there’s no comeuppance for the bad guy, no justice, no resolution – you just leave it with the audience, which is, if I may say so, rather cheeky….
‘Yeah, we looked for every way we could to thwart catharsis. Chad gets away with it. If you spend 90min doing something creative and then throw it all away in the last ten minutes that’s crazy. Besides, Chad is already living in his own kind of hell already. Okay, so he doesn’t get slapped on the wrist, his girlfriend doesn’t find out etc. But he doesn’t look very happy to me. Yes, the last shot we get of him is him lying there being given a blow job by his girlfriend, but he doesn’t seem to be there. And before this he’s sitting watching bad TV, smoking, with his hand down the front of his pants….’
And you even undermine our certainty that Chad’s the bad guy
‘Yeah, Howard has a shred of conscience, but in his own way he’s more despicable than Chad. He doesn’t really act on that conscience. He doesn’t learn anything in the film and by the end it looks like he’s doing worse than he did before. In thirty seconds, he goes from trying to make a good gesture to screaming impotently into the camera.’
In fact, Chad’s almost admirable, isn’t he?
‘Absolutely. I based the structure of the film a bit on Restoration Comedy – which I’m a big fan of – and Chad’s the consummate cuckolder and trickster. There’s a moment in the movie when the audience is watching Howard and thinking, “What a poor fuck he is” and then they realise that they are the poor fucks – that Chad has been screwing them as well. He hasn’t provided enough information to anyone.’
There’s also something of Dangerous Liaisons about this film.
‘Yes, very much. I think there’s a bit of a cruel spirit to the French, even today. We showed the film at Cannes and the darker the movie got the more the audience laughed….’
Yes, that would be the French. Are you a fan of David Mamet?
‘Yes, very much. There’s an essay by David Mamet called ‘In the Company of Men.’ And also a play by Edward Bond, who I’m a great fan of, by the same name.’
Your affinity with Mamet is evident in the bleakness and intensity of the dialogue, and the wordiness of the film. The dialogue is very believable, but also very unreal. People don’t really talk that way; maybe this is more the way they function…
‘That’s the wonderful thing about screen and stage language is that it sounds the way people talk and then you listen again and realise that this isn’t the way people talk at all.’
Your dialogue struck me as kind of Mamet-meets-Tarantino.
‘An ugly love child.’
I’m not sure that love has much to do with it. Do you know any Chads?
‘Oh, yes absolutely. There’s a little bit of Chad in me. I’ve known people who don’t even have the amount of charm that Chad has. You can get away with a lot if you’re good looking and charming. The film I’m making at the moment, Friends And Neighbours, Jason Patric plays a character who makes Chad look schoolboyish. But it’s amazing to watch someone who is so pretty coming out with such sewage…
But strangely entrancing. Do you have any corporate experience?
‘No, not really. But I used to live in New York and I’d see them on the subway every morning, gearing up for their day of combat on Wall Street. A sea of white shirts – it was only the tie which changed each day, a splash of individuality amidst all that conformity.’
It seems to me that your film looks at masculinity from the self-conscious, maybe even slightly jealous aspect of an outsider.
‘I always felt a bit of an outsider. I grew up working on a farm. My father was a truck driver and my brother was in the military, so even as was mucking out a barn I was thinking about moving away. I was a terrible voyeur and watcher, always thinking in terms of good material. There’s a line in a play of mine where two guys are talking at a bar and another guy walks past and one guy says to the other, “God, I’m so fucking glad I’m a guy.” “Why’s that?” says the other guy. “Because I don’t’ have to date them.” I think that was one of the truest things I wrote.’
Aren’t you just a tad hard on men? Are women as innocent and men as corrupt as you portray them in the movie? The woman is a flopsy bunny happily nibbling grass who is devoured by men who are slavering he-wolves.
‘I think that guys by themselves are great. Put them with other guys and they do turn into wolves – everything is suspect, everything is open to ridicule. And yeah, I do think women are in many ways better than men.’
I suspect that your film won’t be quite as controversial here as it was in the US. Not because we don’t have those kind of men – but because British culture isn’t quite so prudish. Also, the fuck-you culture is more developed in the US. Many straight American men I’ve met seem to talk about nothing else other than who they fucked, literally or metaphorically. There’s such a constant stress on being the fucker not the fuckee…
‘That’s absolutely right.’
Another reason why they’re glad they’re not women.
‘Yeah, and I think that it’s precisely the self-recognition that’s the problem. As with the audience for a Restoration Comedy the audience wants to go, oh yeah, I recognise that person, not oh God, that person’s me! The only people who have said to me, God, that would never happen are the ones I suspect of being most like Chad.’
The rage of Caliban in the mirror.
‘Exactly. There were a number of incidents like that in the States when we were trying to sell the film. Usually, it would be female executives pushing the film and then it would reach the invariably male boss guy at the top, who’d go, “That’s not funny. That’s not real. These things don’t happen. I’m not releasing that.” I think that part of the reason why the French enjoyed the movie so much was because they thought it was a reinforcement of the idea of the ugly American and so not a French problem at all.
The scene between Chad and the black employee where he makes him get his balls out is rather strange. It seems to hint at a motivation for Chad – that he’s a repressed homosexual, or that repressed homoeroticism is the dynamic behind all these guys’ actions – but then takes it away.
‘It’s all in Aaron’s face. He just did it on the day and you couldn’t tell what Chad was thinking. Is he fucking this guy up? Is he fucking him? Is he interested in him sexually? There’s all these things going on and you can’t say which one is true or whether they’re all true or all false.
He certainly stares very intently at the lad’s balls for a beat or two too long….
‘Yeah! He certainly does that.’
Whatever the film’s merits as an intervention in the sex war, it certainly has its moments as a black comedy. Some of the executive scenes are piss-yourself funny. In one Chad leafs through the company gazette – you never see the men working; the women however type furiously while the men wander around looking important – picking out all the people he hates.
‘He’s a total fucking fuck, that guy!’ he points. ‘And this one here, Jeez, you know him? He represents a whole new type of fuck!’
When the man he’s been talking to leaves the room, another colleague asks him, ‘Do you like that guy?’
Snorts Chad, ‘What, that fuck?’